Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
In the conventional understanding, the Psalm in the weekly lectionary is chosen to meditate on the First Reading and, like that reading, to anticipate the Gospel.
In that case, the insistence that God has searched and known the psalm writer (the message and hope of Psalm 139, as noted by its use as a framework in verses 1 and 23) is used to reflect on God’s calling of Samuel and to point toward Jesus’ calling of Nathaneal.
Nathaneal quickly recognizes that Jesus’ knowledge of him is knowledge available only to God and immediately confesses this (John 1:49). The preacher on the Johannine text will rightly see Jesus’ access to divine knowledge (the knowledge confessed in our psalm) as another of John’s proclamations that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) — a true epiphany.
Psalm 139 combines praise of, appeal to, and wisdom meditation on this God who knows all and who encompasses all. The psalmist admits to God, in effect, “You know where I live,” which is to say, God can get at me as God wills and there is no place to hide. Normally, for us, the “I know where you live” line is seen as threat, and that certainly can be the case with God as well. Can this possibly be good news? The psalmist obviously hopes that it is, but only because he, like the lectionary, can draw this intensely personal plea into the whole story of Israel with God. This is precisely not the Athenians’ “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) — or any other generic deity, from whom we would almost certainly want to keep our address and phone numbers unlisted. Can you trust an unknown God?
The psalm is like others that understand God as a kind of final court of appeal to whom one can turn when unjustly accused (e.g., Psalm 7; 26; 69). This is not some claim of being without sin (see, e.g., Psalm 69:4-5), but rather a case-by-case insistence that those “wicked” who now accuse me of particular wrongdoing are simply wrong, or perhaps even unjust persecutors. So, “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23) — an appeal that can only be made out of trust in a known God, a God of justice, a God who liberates those wrongly held captive, a God of mercy and steadfast love.
Preachers should note that in order to understand the argument of this psalm they cannot limit their consideration to the verses chosen for the lectionary. The lectionary chooses verses for a particular purpose, but the preacher (if the sermon is genuinely to be on this text) must see those verses in their broader context. So, in this case, we really do need those unpleasant verses about hatred of the wicked.
The one praying is hemmed in by real enemies, real injustice, real “terrorists” — that is his claim — and the appeal is to a God who will not and cannot let that stand. Thus, search me and know me! Of course, on another day (or in another sermon) the psalmist and the listener might come to understand that the appeal to “see if there is any wicked way in me” (verse 24) might turn up things they would rather not have uncovered; but even then the God of this psalm is one to whom one could then flee in hope of mercy.
In Psalm 139, though, the psalmist must not flee to God, God comes to the psalmist. There is no place to flee (verse 7), and in these verses the psalm becomes a meditation on God’s amazing and incomparable “God-ness” (not unlike the meditations of Job) and a hymn of praise to the God who knows not only Samuel and Nathaneal but “me.” The psalm proclaims a relationship with God that is profoundly personal, but never private. God knows me, cares about me, seeks me out, formed me in my mother’s womb, knows me heart and soul, knows my anatomy inside and out — but this is not “my” God as in a God of my choice; this is Yahweh, a God with a name and a history, the God who chooses Israel and me, the God who sent Jesus, the God who calls me not only to look within but to look without to see others wrongly accused and to call them brothers and sisters.
This is a God whom the psalmist and we later readers and singers know within the “story” of the Psalter and of the Bible as a whole — that God — and the appeal to such a God will always be an appeal to draw me into the story and to make me new. The praise of that God will glory in the confession that God knows “all the days that were formed for me” (verse 16) without turning this poetic wonder into a wooden doctrine of predestination foreknowledge that robs me of the joy of being God’s fully human creature, a “real person to God,”1 the relationship that the psalm precisely means to praise so highly.
A surprising turn in the psalm is its insistence that even Sheol — the grave, death itself — cannot separate me from God. Elsewhere, the Psalter thinks it can (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:4-6) — not because there is a limit to God’s power and grace, but because there simply is no “there” there — nothing with which God can relate. Death is death, so, prior to a doctrine of resurrection, I am just gone. Job, too, worries that even his “hope” will be lost if he succumbs to the invasive nothingness of death (Job 17:11-16); but our psalmist retains that hope. “God be at mine end, and at my departing,” he would be able to sing (almost certainly “he” in those days),2 anticipating the joy that comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5), where “neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
The psalm writer does not know all the details of Paul’s confession, does not yet know Easter, but he knows God — more, he knows that God knows him — so he is willing to open himself to wherever this God is taking him, confident that there can be no separation.
1James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 428.
2From “God be in my head” in the Sarum Primer (1538).